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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

the weight of public opinion « Previous | |Next »
October 25, 2007

How do you match the election rhetoric (and negative advertising) with underlying public opinion during a political campaign? Health for instance is a big public issue, but it is on the backburner. Was it explicitly addressed on the Big Debate, with its set positions and packaged answers? How are citizens reading and interpreting the campaign rhetoric? As citizens? Or as self-interested consumers weighing up competing market brands?


John Warhurst's op-ed in the Canberra Times has a go at matching election rhetoric with underlying public opinion. He links the Big Debate to Professor Ian McAllister's Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987-2004; a handbook that reports on the results of surveys conducted at the time of the past seven elections, together with earlier surveys.

Warhurst starts from Paul Kelly criticising Rudd for not being bolder by devoting much more of the tax cuts to services at leaders debate. Warhurst says that this this question of tax cuts versus increased services goes to the heart of the individualist/collectivist divide. He comments:

Those in the health, education and welfare sectors argue Australians are unselfish and actually put the public interest ahead of their private interests. But Australians might just flirt with this notion to make themselves feel good. The old saying is that elections are decided by the hip pocket nerve not altruism.

Warhust says that McAllister and his study colleagues confront this question directly. They ask voters whether they prefer less tax or more spending on social services:
When the question was first asked in 1987 during the Hawke-Keating period, 65 per cent favoured less tax and only 15 per cent favoured more spending on social services. By 2004, the gap had been eliminated. Thirty-seven per cent wanted more spending on social services and only 36 per cent wanted less tax.(Trends, p.28) The community is evenly balanced.

Why the imbalance in election promises towards tax cuts? Warhurst addresses this by asking whether Howard (and by implication Rudd) got it wrong by putting so many of his eggs in the tax cuts basket? Or is the electorate just kidding? He suggests that Howard and Rudd might be reading the electorate better when considering what voters do in the privacy of the ballot box.

It's an odd argument. Trust the polls in terms of voting intentions but dismiss them on surveys about policy options. Why not accept what the surveys show---public opinion is divided by the trend is towards better services. You would expect Howard and Costello to favour tax cuts --it's core Liberal philosophy. The question is why is the ALP doing the same, given the strong preference for redistribution of wealth noted by McAllister (51% to 20%). The ALP were trapped by Howard and Costello. The election has its own dynamic in terms of agenda setting.

Isn't that a better argument than saying citizens are deceitful and dishonest, in that they really are self-seeking (hip pocket) but are ashamed to admit that this is their nature? Why not question rational choice theory?

Why not think in terms of citizens as possessor of rights, entitlements, opportunities and resources that are the result of a process in the form of enfranchisement, consisting in the increasing liberty of the individual, the growth of the idea that individuals have rights and claims, and that they can assert themselves against the constituted authority of the land.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:46 AM | | Comments (8)


Perhaps the problem lies in our expectation that the conduct of elections should make sense. Elections aren't about good governance, they're about winning a perceptions game.

In wanting improved services people are looking for good governance, the ideal situation after the election. By responding to the Liberal's tax cuts, Labor are giving us the good election.

re your comment,Elections aren't about good governance, they're about winning a perceptions game.

Yes from the pespective of the campaign strategists in the political parties.

But we citizens don't think that way.We think in terms of the future of Australia and what's the best proposal re defining that future.

how can the ALP's gigantic tax cuts in an inflationary sitation be seen as a giving us a good election?


From the figures Warhurst quotes in that article and most of the stuff in the study itself, you get the impression that the people have shifted from one set of concerns to another, and left government behind.

It's true that people aren't as bothered about elections as politicians are. Rudd seems to be more attuned to the trends in the study than Howard, but in a campaign he has to appeal to what actually concerns people while battling with Howard.


That bit about battling with Howard is what I meant about giving us a good election. It's like war. If you want to win you're going to have to meet the enemy on his own territory at some point.

The election study shows that we're divided roughly 50-50 between those who want tax cuts and those who want services. An election is about being seen to give us what we want. Howard set the agenda for tax cuts and Rudd was forced, in an election, to match him to impress that half of the 50-50.

i really struggle with voter motive and intention.. Gary, you and i might be thinking of the better proposal for australia's future, but i know people whose preference will be decided by local or state issues, some who say the government is 'gone' but will still be voting Liberal and others who will be tossing a coin on the morning..

for this reason, i think Lyn's position is closer to the truth.. it may make for weak policy and an even worse election (if that's what you meant, Nan, re:"good election"), but campaigning is definitely focussed on pandering to the vocal/active minority while trying not to alienate the majority..

I accept the battle war frame. But wars are fought on more than one front. Rudd is fighting on the front where Howard has his defenses, and not moving on continuing to opening up the other front---better health and education--where he is strongest.

'tis true what you say--in that it is what many commentators say is the case.

But thinking of the future as citizens can be akin to parents thinking of the kids future under Workchoices.

And they appear to have made up their minds about Howard on this. It is not the baseball scenario---but it is one where the government's conception of the future is just not good enough.It has to better than this for our kids.

This kind of stuff is weaving in an out of the media flows.


That's true this week. You have to figure that either Labor think they have health and education covered and are now moving into Liberal territory, or they're just responding to Liberal agenda-setting.

The longer term Labor strategy has been too intelligent for the latter alternative to be the case. I hope. If it keeps going like this it will be a dreadfully dull campaign.